GARDEN FRESH : Cress Crossing

Next time you get bored with what you're cooking, you might want to think about giving familiar ingredients a quarter-turn. The dessert recipe calls for fruit and sugar? Add them in the form of jam. They want potatoes in the stew? Make them sweet potatoes. Have lettuce as a course in your dinner party, all right, but not in salad--braise it and serve it first.

And play around with herbs. I've been thinking about cresses as though they weren't a vegetable but were used like parsley. This has given me a keener appreciation of the nuances of the flavors of cress than I ever had before.

As a vegetable, cress has all that pepperiness and tang close at hand. As an herb--in a supporting role, meant to make other flavors shine--I find myself waiting for the ping of cress to hit. When it does, I hear myself say a little "ahhhh." Piquant as it may be, the taste of cress is subtler than that of herbs native to warm, stony soils--such as sage and rosemary. In the soup that follows, the flavor isn't immediately noticeable. Not until I was in the middle of my bowlful did I realize what a dimension the cress--my elegant new herb--added.

Then I discovered that cress the herb is a venerable tradition around the world. In Japan, a few stalks add flavor to clear fish broth as well as to the filling of nori rolls--sushi rice rolled in seaweed. In China, cress flavors soups made with pork and chicken. In Italy, a peppery bit of cress goes into the stuffing of tortellini. And an Indian friend whisks chopped cress into cold yogurt with hot green chiles, green onions and toasted walnuts.

All cresses are interchangeable in recipes, except that some will be hotter than others. Grow what best suits your situation--or buy what you find at a farmers market--then taste as you add.

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Between gardeners of one era and another, and seedsmen in one corner of the country and another, names in "cressland" get confusing. What your great-aunt Martha called peppergrass is today called garden cress by one source, curly cress by another and curled cress by a third. The seedlings are curly indeed, but mature leaves look like a lacy Italian parsley--enchanting.

The flavor of garden cress is a clean, peppery tang. It's the fastest and easiest of the cresses to grow. Given ample water and moisture-retentive soil, curly sprouts will be there to pick in 12 days, lacy leaves in a month to six weeks. Leaves grow eight or more inches tall and are fetching in a garden border with tangerine and lemon gem marigolds. It's as pleasurable a green as there is to grow. Let the children in your life have the excitement of sowing garden cress seeds and reaping the zingy reward.

Broadleaf cress is just that--the leaves are elongated and smooth, rather feather-shaped. While always described as peppery, the flavor--depending on the strain--may or may not have that distinctive hot, mustardy undertaste. All these cresses are mustards, after all, which accounts for their heat. Broadleaf cress also grows quickly--but it doesn't need moist, rich soil. I've grown reform broadleaf cress, a Dutch strain from Shepherd's, in our light, sandy soil, and I've been grateful it didn't need an abundance of water. It's mustardy, but not unpleasantly so.

Then there's upland cress, also known as land cress, winter cress, Belle Isle and creasy greens. This hardy biennial resembles its cousin arugula/rocket--roundish dark-green leaves are deeply lobed and grow in a pretty, open rosette. Its flavor is like watercress, perhaps a tad more pungent. The finest leaves are in the center. Give this cress damp soil in a north-facing corner and it's in heaven.

If you have little or light frosts in winter, sow seeds of garden, broadleaf and upland cresses now in light soil in a sheltered place, for harvesting through winter. (Don't cover the seeds of garden cress--they want light to germinate.) Replenish the crop with fresh sowings every few weeks. If you have frost, sow the same way in a cold frame. Snip leaves individually in a cut-and-come-again fashion when they're four to six inches tall. These are cool-season plants that quickly flower when the weather turns hot. Broad-leaf cress is slower to flower than others, so you can sow it longer in spring.

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If you live where the climate is mild all year, you can sprinkle cress seeds in moist patches in your garden every few weeks and have bites forever and ever and ever.

While these other cresses give the impression they'd love to come along on a picnic and be tossed into a salad with everybody else, you sense watercress wouldn't be comfortable with the hoi polloi . This aristocratic cress will forever be the symbol of the tea sandwich (no crusts, limp white bread, exquisitely sweet butter) and effete cream soup. But freshly picked watercress has a spice and snap unmatched in other cresses. Maybe it's the shape of the leaf. Picked at its prime, the leaves are smaller than broadleaf and upland cresses but have more surface to be tangy than garden cress.

Watercress grows best in running water, which few of us have. Which reminds me: Watercress growing on the banks of a creek is divinely fresh and tempting. But wild watercress can harbor parasites, so don't eat it.

In wetter times, I've grown a patch under a shady faucet I let drip, and it grew nicely. Mostly, I've grown watercress in lightweight soil mix in a five-gallon pot set in a deep saucer. I fill the saucer often enough to keep the soil moist. The pot has to be enormous because the cress grows rapidly, and the roots soon choke the life out of one another. Then the leaves get smaller and smaller, which can be depressing to watch. You have either to start a new pot or divide the roots frequently.

Watercress seeds can be slow to germinate (soak them 24 hours before sowing). Try rooting stalks from the market. Tuck in a glass of water, refresh the water daily, then plant when roots form--easy as pie.

All cresses grow in pots, but where there's frost, they'll freeze easily, being above ground, so give them shelter. If you have a sunshiny window, you can grow cresses indoors all year long and munch on a few zippy leaves when spirits sag--and add a handful to a dish should it do the same.

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Nibbling reminds me that when cooked, the pungency of cresses diminishes. Then, in its role as herb, cress becomes elusive--an enhancing quality the French have put a name to: je ne sais quoi. Only you will know what it is.

Sources:

Fresh--watercress should be at every market; look for other cresses at farmers' markets.

Seeds--Curly, Reform Broadleaf and Watercress: Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif. 95018. Creasy Greens/Upland Cress, Curly and Watercress: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Box 158, North Garden, Va. 22959.

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This soup helps with the classic end-of-summer "What-do-I-do-with-them-NOW?" zucchini/pattypan/scallopini/crookneck squashes. The soup is refreshing, easy to make, may be prepared a day in advance and can be close to fat-free if you use 1% buttermilk and no-fat sour cream (it's quite palatable, really, in this blend).

Summer squash soup makes a fine light meal when accompanied by a few morsels of fish or fowl. Unshelled shrimp threaded on bamboo skewers and grilled on a hibachi would add a lovely coral, as well as their gentle taste. And more and more I find I need purplish brown-black Kalamata olives on the table--I'm beginning to think they're my security blanket. And there should be chewy French bread, rings of sweet red peppers while they're still in season, and, afterward, crisp greens and sharp Cheddar cheese. For dessert, serve some of the beautiful Asian pears that are now at their prime.

Although only the leaves of many herbs are used traditionally--the stems being too tough or too brittle--the upper stems of cresses are tender and succulent and filled with flavor. So I stack the branches and slice away. That's considerably easier than plucking off fragile leaf by fragile leaf .

COLD SUMMER SQUASH BUTTERMILK SOUP WITH TOUCH OF WATERCRESS

1 pound summer squash, trimmed

1/2 large cucumber, peeled if skin is tough

1/4 cup cold water

3 cups buttermilk

1 cup sour cream, or low- or no-fat sour cream

1 cup finely chopped cress leaves and stems

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

Petals of unsprayed yellow, gold, or orange calendulas or marigolds for edible garnish

Keeping separate, grate squash and cucumber into long, slender shreds. Turn squash and water into large, heavy skillet (preferably non-stick). Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, 8 minutes. Blend in cucumber and cook until tender but still luminous, about 5 minutes more.

In mixing bowl whisk buttermilk and sour cream until smooth. Add squash, its juices and watercress. Stir to blend. Season to taste with salt. Cover and chill until icy. Season to taste with white pepper. Float petals on top. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

228 calories; 302 mg sodium; 32 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.99 gram fiber.

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